Proud remembrance or futile nostalgia? Kathleen Morgan talks to director BILL BRYDEN and designer BILL DUDLEY about The Ship, Glasgow 1990’s most ambitious theatrical project, about to be
launched in Govan.
rom the outside. an old Lewis‘s warehouse. situated apologetically within an area which once represented the might ofthe Scottish shipbuilding industry. From the inside. ‘a miracle on a shoestring‘. according to Bill Dudley. designer of The Ship. which stands. stretching its steel fingers 40 feet into the roofofthe old
l larland and Wolffengine room.
The miracle is obvious. considering the immensity ofthis Leviathan which dwarfs its makers. a team ofeight welders who hang onto it like spiders effusing brilliant sparks. The shoestring is less obvious: a budget of£900.000. bravely extracted mainly from private sponsors by waving a very large and very empty cap.
Bill Bryden. writer and director of The Ship. and long—time theatrical accomplice of Dudley. was commissioned in 1988 by Glasgow District Council to produce ‘something particular to Glasgow which had an element ofspectacle about it.‘ Dudley. flashing a characteristic twinkle in his creative eye. notes that. ‘We took them at their word when they asked for a large-scale piece.‘ Given ‘almost free rein‘. Bryden and Dudley retorted with the hugely ambitious idea ofan epic production which celebrates the shipbuilding communities of the Lower Clyde. and involves the construction ofa twenty-ton skeleton ofa ship-cum-theatre.
Remembered in Scotland for his work at the Royal Lyceum. and the failed crusade for a Scottish National Theatre. Bill Bryan is used to thinking big. ‘We talked about something which would be around the scale of The Mysteries. which had been a success at the National Theatre and also involved Bill Dudley and John Tams the music director. I had an idea oftrying to find the theatrical equivalent of shipbuilding. and trying to build a ship and launch it.’
A year-long search for a suitable site. scanning ‘every working and redundant maintenance yard. factory, warehouse and Open air site on the Upper and Lower Clyde.’ ended with the discovery of the old Harland and Wolff shed in Govan. Dudley’s original idea was to use the dry docks down the road, ‘shaped like a Roman amphitheatre and containing the huge footprint
3 never wanted to work on ships. 1 just thought they were great to look at. Art school ofcourse knocks
ofa ship. about 9000 feet long.‘ However the cruel sting ofpracticality prevailed over dramatic sensibility: 'We couldn‘t guarantee that the lock-gates would hold and the audience wouldn’t drown.‘ he sniggers. ‘We would have had to evacuate l 100 people in 30 seconds in a scene meriting a Charlton Heston epic.‘ Some finale.
Dudley is an outsider to the shipbuilding community; a self-professed romantic who betrays an excitement about the project which Greenock-born Bryden. who based the play Willie Rough upon his shipbuilding grandfather. tends to subdue.
‘l have always found ships beautiful objects.‘ enthuses Dudley. whose mentor in adolescence was more likely Captain Pugwash than Captain Beefheart. ‘The ship is rather like an umbrella; it dominates the little houses of the people who built it. almost like a mother or a kind ofbig whale. providing sustenance to the community. I
all that out of you. so I drifted towards the theatre.‘
Dudley. who now lives in London beside the old (.‘utty Sark. gazes lovingly towards the model of his creation. a mere embryo ofthe steel hulk cradled below us in the engine shed. ‘We wanted to capture the immensity ofa ship prior to being launched. We couldn‘t match that in scale. but you can do tricks to make it feel big. so we‘ve taken the shed here. which is deliberately slightly too small. so the ship looks mammoth within it. For a year we couldn‘t even figure out how to fit it all in.‘
As in the cases of previous Bryden-Dudley productions such as Lark Rise. Dispute/res and The Mysteries. The Ship is a promenade performance. which. as director Bryden explains. ‘gives the audience a direct contact with the energy ofthe actor which you can‘t get with ‘ ordinary theatre. They’re right next to the actor s danger. in the midst of all the action. each ofthem possessing their own camera eye. their own play. Dudley. who has lifted the engine room from the bowels of a ship‘s design. ‘so that it is like a filleted whale‘. has attempted to achieve a street-market effect. where the audience walks J
The List 31 August 13 September I‘)‘)07